Monthly Archives: December 2013

Pura Vida in Costa Rica

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Colorful Costa Rica

If nature opened an amusement park I know exactly where it would be. Just before the North American continent tapers down to the narrow isthmus that is Panama, lies the jewel of Central America: Costa Rica. Translated, pura vida means: Pure life, which aside from being the national motto, aptly describes the philosophy of this tropical country that is nearly the size of the entire state of West Virginia.

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Paradise Found at Tabacon Hot Springs

Arriving at the outskirts of the capital San Jose, it became readily apparent that my theme park analogy wasn’t all that off the mark. On the plane and on line through customs, conversations with my fellow arrivals had them heading off to various corners of the country as if they were different sections of an amusement park: Steamy Tortuguero, the beaches of arid Guanacaste, and the lush mountains of Monteverde and Arenal. The latter was my first stop, and after an adventurous three hour drive spent leapfrogging slow-moving vehicles around impossibly curving roads, our party arrived at the tourist hub of La Fortuna. The town itself is hardly an attraction. Rather it is its location alongside the imposing Arenal volcano that places it on the tourism map. Dominating the landscape and visitors’ itineraries, this volcano is no sleeping giant. It is and has been continuously active for some time. In fact, a highlight of my visit was standing outside our rental car at night on the far side of the mountain and watching spurts of glowing red appear and dissolve in the darkness. It is, admittedly, a bit disconcerting when every so often a rumble reverberates through the jungle, but somehow visions of Pompeii are little deterrent to nature lovers the world over who come to see Costa Rica’s biological bonanza up close and personal.

Though my itinerary was filled with active interests such as rappelling down a jungle gorge and rafting the wild whitewater of the Rio Toro, it was our time spent relaxing at Tabacon Hot Springs that made the greatest impression. Situated west of town and at the base of the northern slope of the Arenal volcano, this highly-manicured collection of natural hot springs and secluded man-made pools convey a sense of Eden—especially for those who splurge on the pricey spa treatments available. Soaking in the sometimes scalding water, once again the theme park analogy popped into my head, with the names Relaxland and Paradiseland the frontrunners for its moniker. And just like a theme park, when the sun went down and the brilliant colors of hanging heliconia plants faded in the dusk, the discreet lighting around the cascading pools emitted an ambiance of an all-natural Disney World. Pura vida indeed.

With the adrenaline still fresh in our systems, our party set off to immerse ourselves in the abundant wildlife to be found, and our destination of choice was Carara National Park—a swath of rainforest hugging the picturesque Pacific Coast. To our delight the encounters started even before we arrived. Crossing the TarcolesRiver, we were greeted by the sight of clusters of crocodiles ranging from 4 to 12 feet long lazing along the banks of the muddy water. At the park entrance we opted to hire a naturalist guide, and in hindsight this was the best decision we made the entire trip. Had we not done so, I’m convinced that we would have missed 90% of the things we saw, from an adorable family of capuchin monkeys to dozens of birds to a vividly-colored poison arrow frog.

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Zip-lining near Montezuma

After all that activity we found it necessary once again to rest, and for that we headed to the laid-back, somewhat Bohemian beach town of Montezuma, located at the tip of the unspoiled semi-arid Nicoya Peninsula. Pura Vida echoed in my head every morning as I awoke to the sound of raging surf and playful monkeys clambering through the trees outside my window. Popular with surfers, the Nicoya Peninsula is more than just a great place to catch some waves. A half hour hike brought us to magnificent MontezumaFalls and its refreshing pools. The next day I got to see them from an entirely different perspective while on one of the many canopy tours available, though ‘tour’ is hardly the right word since the entire experience involves zip-lining across stretches of the upper levels of the rainforest. There is truly very little to compare with the experience of soaring from treetop to treetop on a cable several stories off the ground while watching the menagerie of the jungle whir past your feet. Let’s see a theme park beat that.

As with all good things, my time in Costa Rica eventually came to an end. I had come to taste the pure life, and found that the taste was indeed as sweet as advertised. And as the plane lifted high above the green mountains and steaming volcanoes I mused that Costa Rica was one theme park that was certainly worth the price of admission.

Categories: Destinations | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Southern (Hemisphere) Comfort

It’s that time of year again. While I’m vacillating my attention between my icy driveway and the level of oil for my burner, my mind tends to wander from the chilly environs of my native Long Island and longingly travel to points south—way south. I don’t know if it’s comforting or teasing to know that even though we’re on the same page of the calendar, on the other side of the equator the sand is on the beaches, not the roads, and the only ice to be found is mixed with fruit and liquor. And while we had our chance to enjoy the warmth of summer a few months ago, I can’t help but feel a twinge of envy when I think about the pleasant weather happening right now in lower latitudes.

 

Looking back, some of my fondest beach memories took place during what North Americans, Europeans, most Africans and all Asians with the exception of Indonesians (who never get cold weather anyway) would consider the winter months. So here are a few of them with incongruous dates to match the picture. Perhaps it will warm you up by imagining yourself there—or with anger at my having brought it up. 

 

January 25, 2008

Punta del Este, Uruguay

The happening resort town of Punta del Este

The happening resort town of Punta del Este

 

Seeing the word January on the calendar doesn’t often conjure images of sun-kissed beaches and warm waters, but it certainly does to visitors and residents of this happening resort area less than two hours’ drive east of the capital of Montevideo. I only got to spend a few hours here before my cruise ship was set to sail onward, but it felt great to (literally) get my feet wet again after several months of cold weather back home—not to mention having been in the frigid waters of Antarctica just a few days before.

 

March 10, 2013

Ilha Grande, Brazil

The idyllic sand & surf of Praia Lopes Mendes, Ilha Grande, Brazil

The idyllic sand & surf of Praia Lopes Mendes, Ilha Grande, Brazil

 

Historically, March is one of the snowiest months where I live, so you can imagine the joy of coming to the end of the sometimes arduous path through the jungle and stepping out onto the powdery sands of the beach called Lopes Mendes—considered one of Brazil’s best. I distinctly recall walking the edge of the waterline, alternating between the baking sand and the cool waters of the South Atlantic while listening to music on my iPhone and marveling at the verdant scenery hugging the ribbon of sand curving off ahead of me. Upon returning to my wife and blanket and opening a bottle of the local cerveja, I can assure you wind chills and snow drifts were the last things on my mind.

 

March 18, 2009

Praslin, Seychelles Islands

Anse Lazio, Praslin Island, Seychelles

Anse Lazio, Praslin Island, Seychelles

 

While at the end of the season—though technically on the winter side of the Spring Equinox—visiting the golden sands of the beach at Anse Lazio in late March was zero part lion and 100% lamb. I arrived here at sunset after a delayed bus ride, broken sandal on a steep hillside descent, and an encounter with a pack of dogs with questionable motives. All that was forgotten—along with the date—upon seeing the calm waters lapping the rounded granite boulders bordering this tranquil cove. I took my pictures, caught my breath and negotiated a cab ride back to the resort with the last of my cash, but if I had the chance I doubt if I would have ever left until well into Spring.

 

So as we Northern Hemispherers (trademark pending) prepare to enter the heart of winter’s wrath, it’s not such a bad idea to steal a thought or glance south. Perhaps planning that trip to the other half of the planet will be what you need to get you through a few months of heavy coats and scraping windshields.

 

Have a favorite experience in the Southern Hemisphere? Leave a comment

Categories: Anecdotes | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Suck the Juice Out of Your Next Vacation

Sunny or Cloudy, seize the day!

Sunny or Cloudy, seize the day!

In my high school, Latin wasn’t a language students were forced to (or could choose to) study. Yet, it’s a safe bet to say that most of my generation learned at least two words in Latin during the late eighties/early nineties due to the (now) classic film Dead Poets Society. If you get the reference, then I’m sure you already know which two words they are: carpe diem—seize the day. Yes, those two words were the underlying message throughout the film, and inspired a group of adolescent boys to drink deep from their lives and make the most of them. That same principle carries over to travel, and I’m pleased to now present another aspect of my “travel philosophy”, namely: suck the juice out of every experience.

 

It isn’t hard to take things for granted—even on vacation. Usually our minds are so cluttered from the life we leave behind that it takes awhile to clear out the distractions and pay attention to the here and now. Failure to do so can lead to regret further down the line, as no one wants to look back on a travel experience (& the costs involved) and wish they had done things differently or lament that they didn’t have the wherewithal to recognize the significance of what they were doing and thinking at the time.

 

So how does one avoid post-traveler’s regret? How does one not just scrape the surface of an experience with their teeth, but rather bite down hard and suck out the juice as rivulets of sticky nectar drip down your chin until you’re left with little more than dried out lump of pulp? Here’s a few words of advice from someone who metaphorically needs a bib.

 

Take A Mental Snapshot

 

Oftentimes, we don’t recognize our greatest experiences until they’re over. Developing a habit of pausing to examine various moments in time during your trip can do much to ramp up your awareness. When composing your mental snapshot be sure to include the following elements: Who you’re with; What you’re doing; & Where you are. Capturing these factors will not only bring delight as you fill in the blanks, but also prepare you for my next suggestion.

 

Don’t Just Swallow—Digest

 

Just as our bodies need time to assimilate what we put into them, so too our minds need a chance to reflect on the experiences had if we’re to get the most meaning out of them. At this point—perhaps on the long flight back home, or a monotonous car or train ride between destinations—there are a few secondary questions to ask yourself to go along with the who, what and where from the first step. For instance, compare those answers to your previous expectations. Did you ever think you would be in ______ with ______ doing _____? Chances are your answer will be no, leading you to better appreciate what you experienced, and setting the stage for future delight in the unscripted nature of life. Of course, our ability to digest is dependent upon how we eat, which leads me to the third factor…

 

Eat Well, But Slowly

 

Given the time constraints most people have, the temptation is there to cram as much in as possible and sort it out later. True, you can accomplish a lot that way, but just like with any enjoyable meal, it always tastes better if you slow down and savor the flavor. I know from personal experience that this is hard. Even when it comes to literal eating, I’m always the first one done with their plate. But over time I’ve learned to desist (or at least pull back) from cramming my metaphorical face when traveling and to take the time to absorb the subtle nuances that are lost in a whirlwind tour. So stare out at that sunset. Sit and talk with some locals in the piazza, plaza or praca. Float on your back and gaze up at the clouds. And by all means enjoy that gelato, samosa or kebab. Just do it slowly enough that you’re aware of the experience.

 

Armed with these basic tenets of travel philosophy, you can now not only suck the juice out of your vacation but your everyday life as well. Remember carpe diem. And while I’d recommend against standing up on your plane seat or cruise dinner table and shouting out “O Captain, my Captain!” you should be able to seize the day on the days you travel and also be able to hang onto them.

 

 

Categories: Travel Tips | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The Witty Traveler’s Guide to Cappadocia

Souvenirs for sale, Kaymakli, Turkey

Souvenirs for sale, Kaymakli, Turkey

From a Persian term meaning “Land of Beautiful Horses”, Cappadocia is not one town but rather a region etched into an otherwise unremarkable plateau in central Turkey. It was in this general neighborhood that the ancient Hittites thrived, paving the way for a unique collaboration between man and nature that is still in effect today. Having always wanted to visit another planet, I was thrilled by the prospect of visiting a landscape that looked right out of a galaxy far, far, away.

 

Before the emergence of the Hittites—or anyone else for that matter—erupting volcanoes blanketed the region with a mixture of hard volcanic rock and ash, which solidified into a soft material called tuff. Over the millennia, the combination of wind, rain, and temperature changes caused the underlying tuff to erode while the denser upper layer of volcanic rock remained intact. The result is a Dali-like dreamscape of cones and pillars that wouldn’t look out of place with a melting clock or two draped across them. Though the sizes and shapes vary widely, the undeniable stars of the show are the so-called “fairy chimneys.” Political correctness and good taste aside, these towering shafts of rock topped with mushroom-shaped peaks challenge even the most Puritan among us not to giggle while winding through what are essentially valleys full of upright phallus. Personally, I did a lot of giggling.

 

Most visitors arrive in Cappadocia by air via the rather industrial city of Kayseri. From the airport it is less than an hour’s drive to a pair of the area’s primary tourism centers: Goreme and Urgup. The latter boasts the lion’s share of the region’s upscale accommodations, though throughout Cappadocia the most appealing lodging by far is available in numerous ‘cave’ hotels liberally delved into the mountainsides.

 

 

A cave hotel has all the charms of home--especially if you're from the town of Bedrock

A cave hotel has all the charms of home–especially if you’re from the town of Bedrock

Essentially renovated cave dwellings from generations past, these small-scale enterprises boast all the comforts of home—especially if you’re from the town of Bedrock. The charm derives from the fact that each room is uniquely sculpted from the aforementioned tuff, from ornately carved “moldings” to the hollowed-out nooks for local bric-a-brac. After a long day of giggling and exploration there’s no greater feeling than climbing into your very own hole in the wall.

 

 

Goreme Open Air Museum, Goreme, Turkey

Goreme Open Air Museum, Goreme, Turkey

The nearby hamlet of Goreme is home to the aptly-named Goreme Open Air Museum—a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This cluster of honeycombed hills was once a stronghold of early Christianity, as is evidenced by numerous chapels, churches, and monasteries with frescoes dating back to the 9th century. Here, the landscape has been sculpted by more than just the elements. In seemingly all directions are the remains of troglodyte dwellings hewn from the rock in an Escher-like warren of doorways and staircases whose architectural style can be best described as early Dr. Seuss.

 

 

Baloon-view over Cappadocia, Turkey

Balloon-view over Cappadocia, Turkey

For a clearer perspective of the uniqueness of Cappadocia, I suggest rising above the jungle of rock to take in the surreal landscape by hot air balloon. Is it expensive? Well, yes, but those who have indulged in an hour or so drift across this moonscape are hardly quibbling over pennies when they finally touch down. The movement is gentle and serene and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better vehicle to take in the views. If it wasn’t for the challenges of parallel parking, I’d say a hot air balloon may just be the best way to travel period.

 

As if the cave dwellings and hot air balloons were not enough, Cappadocia is also home to several underground cities such as can be found in Kaymakli and Derinkuyu. Burrowed some eight to ten stories underground, these mazes of chambers and kitchens sheltered tens of thousands of the local populous for months at a time during periods of Arab invasion. Though not recommended for severe claustrophobics, most will find that just such a tour is well within their comfort and interest range, and its fun playing ‘ant in the terrarium.’

 

Naturally, almost all tours include stops at the local tourist traps where guests are given a demonstration of how local handicrafts are made, then amazingly offered the opportunity to purchase a piece for themselves. At the very least it’s nice to sit down and relax over a warm cup of the ubiquitous apple tea you’re sure to be offered. Plus, adding a handmade souvenir to your china cabinet is worth the trouble of being targeted by smooth-talking Turkish salesmen.

 

Many Americans may feel hesitant about traveling to Turkey, yet such trepidation is mostly unfounded. The Turks are a truly friendly bunch and if they seem proud about their heritage, just take a look around and you’ll understand why. Prices are generally reasonable and though you’d do well to sharpen your haggling skills, deals can be had. Just a note, if you’re looking to take home that authentic Turkish rug, be sure to save your pennies and be prepared to receive the full-court press if you show any real interest.

 

Without a doubt, a visit to Cappadocia is an experience far removed from your average vacation. For anyone wanting to try something different without straying from their comfort zone, you’d be hard pressed to find another locale with so much to do and such a unique setting to do it in. Besides, at the very least you should get a few giggles out of it, and after all, isn’t that what travel is all about?

Categories: Destinations | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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